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Legacies of the Korean War in the Diaspora

By Ramsay Liem | December 2, 2021




Legacies of the Korean War is an online collection of audio, video and print interviews with Korean Americans who survived the Korean War or were raised in families with survivors, curated by a collaboration of scholars and filmmakers. For many years, memory of these experiences was suppressed, pushed to the margins of official Korean War histories and silenced within Korean American communities fractured by Cold War divisions. But as survivors age and pass away and second and third generation Korean Americans seek to understand their historical origins, these often-painful memories stand as testaments not only to the generational trauma of war, but also to the strength and heart of the Korean American community.


Koreans throughout the diaspora share the horror with those in the homeland of a Korean War fought to an impermanent standstill in 1953 and ever threatening to re-erupt in a nuclear age. As President Donald Trump put it to Senator Lindsay Graham in 2017: “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” This brazen display of chauvinism betrays a nativist assumption that no one ‘over there’ is also here, notably nearly 2 million Korean Americans many with family ties to Korea and others who are direct survivors of the Korean War or their descendants.


The memories and scars of Koreans in the diaspora deserve to be lifted from obscurity and attest to the stake that all Americans have in an urgent resolution to a 20th Century Korean War that has plagued regional and global security for seven decades. Toward this end the Korea Policy Institute will feature the story of a contributor to the Legacies collection in this and future issues of its newsletter, beginning with Insook Won.


Insook Won was on the cusp of her teenage years when full scale fighting broke out in Korea. The youngest of five children, her story is emblematic of a painful post World War II period when the United States with cooperation from the Soviet Union divided Korea at the 38th parallel. That geographic imposition intensified civil tensions between left and right leaning Koreans grappling with post war reconstruction amidst the intrusion of a U.S. occupying government in the south and ubiquitous Soviet presence in the north. Caught in this ideological struggle, Insook Won suffered the deaths of two older brothers sympathetic to communist ideals during the early months of the Korean War. Years later following her emigration to the United States, she reflects on how this still unresolved ideological division has shaped the family story she has been able to tell. This legacy of the Korean War is not hers alone.


A video excerpt of Insook Won’s story and transcriptions of the full interview can be found here.


The Legacies of the Korean War team welcomes reactions to and questions about the Legacies of the Korean War project. Please send your comments to info@legaciesofthekoreanwar.org.


Ramsay Liem, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Boston College, Legacies of the Korean War, and KPI Associate.